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‘The Incredible Jessica James’ Review: Jessica Williams Makes a Bid For Movie Stardom — Sundance 2017

In Jim Strouse's latest Sundance charmer, his former supporting star takes center stage with mixed results, though Williams' wattage is unquestionable.

“The Incredible Jessica James”

Who wouldn’t want to build an entire film around the breakout charms of Jessica Williams? That must have been the thought that crossed filmmaker Jim Strouse’s mind when he cast her in his 2015 Sundance premiere “People Places Things,” in which the former “Daily Show” correspondent stole every single scene she appeared in (no small feat, considering the film afforded Williams her biggest role yet, and she was cast alongside other charmers like Jemaine Clement and Regina Hall). For Strouse’s next feature, he’s — quite smartly — turned his full attention to Williams, who makes a bold bid for movie stardom as the centerpiece of “The Incredible Jessica James.”

The film will likely feel familiar to fans of Strouse’s brand of quirky humor, the kind that doesn’t shy away from using big problems — divorce, infidelity, professional failure — to earn both its laughs and relatability. But it’s Williams who pushes the material to a higher register, if only by the sheer force of her talent and charm. If you’re going to build an entire film around one actor, Williams is a pretty safe bet.

READ MORE: The 2017 IndieWire Sundance Bible: Every Review, Interview, And News Story From The Fest

“You’re kind of an annoying person, aren’t you?” a peripheral character asks the so-called incredible Jessica Jones about halfway through the feature, just as Jessica is perhaps at her worst. Jessica concedes that she is indeed, but that’s only half the story — she’s also honest, forthright, headstrong and stubborn as hell, and it’s nearly impossible not to like her and her special kind of perseverance.

A floundering playwright who pays her bills by teaching kids theater — an endeavor that she never treats like a second-string assignment — Jessica may have big dreams, but she’s remarkably pragmatic in her approach. Her “deep, deep, deep Bushwick” apartment has walls lined with rejection letters, and adding a new one to their ranks has become something of an everyday occurrence. But Jessica is undeterred — if anything, her stumbles have only made her more fully herself.

“The Incredible Jessica James” opens with Jessica hilariously mucking through a Tinder date, in which she shocks her gobsmacked suitor by declaring that “drinking is basic AF” (the date takes place at a bar), upbraiding him for deploying the world’s worst pickup line over text (“Wanna bone?”) and using him to make her ex-boyfriend (an always-welcome Lakeith Stanfield) jealous. Jessica is a whirlwind, and that’s essentially the plot of the film, one that manages to meander despite its slim 85-minute runtime.

Heartbroken over her breakup with Damon (Stanfield), Jessica attempts to get back on her feet through her work and a mostly ill-concieved date with the recently divorced Boone (Chris O’Dowd), who is just as emotionally screwed up as she is. While the pair doesn’t instantly spark to each other, they find a shared interest in honesty (and, yes, as hammy as that sounds, Williams and O’Dowd sell the hell out of it) that keeps pulling them together, even as their pasts threaten to pull them apart. As heavy as that might sound on paper, Strouse keeps a light touch, and Williams’ mega-watt personality keeps things increasingly amusing.

READ MORE: ‘Dayveon’ Review: Amman Abbasi’s Debut Pulls A Powerful Coming-Of-Age Story From The Rural Heart Of Arkansas

Strouse’s love of whimsy works well within the confines of Jessica’s complicated and creative mind, and the film is laden with touching flashbacks and snappy dream sequences, all the better to look inside Jessica’s head. Yet there’s plenty of grounded stuff that’s undercooked, from Jessica’s family life (a brief trip home to Ohio only highlights the little bits we’ve already learned) to her friendship with the goofy Tasha (Noel Wells). We know who Jessica is, but “The Incredible Jessica James” never fills out the rest of her wild world.
Fortunately enough, Williams along with her burgeoning star power and ability to bring absolute charm and sparkle to every second of the film elevates it, if only as further proof of what she’s capable of doing when given the opportunity. “The Incredible Jessica James”? Please. It’s The Incredible Jessica Williams, and don’t you forget it.

Grade: B-

“The Incredible Jessica James” premiered in the Premieres section of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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